What is Reflective Learning?

Reflective learning is, in its simplest form, thinking about or reflecting on your experiences. Then exploring what worked, what didn’t, why and what you can do differently next time.

This goes beyond any normal human ‘thinking’ as it takes conscious effort to think about events and develop insights into them.

Reflective learning is a game changer for embedding learning and it’s why we include it as a core element of our Lead! programme for people leaders.

The programme sponsor (the stakeholder(s) that buy in the programme) choose one of 3 ways that will work best for their participants.

Writing a reflective essay on their progress is one of those choices. Participants capture their key learning and actions during each module, have a range of recommended resources to explore after the module, then try something out and reflect on how it landed. After the programme, they write a reflective essay, outlining:

Not only is this a brilliant way to embed the learning, participants get a great sense of accomplishment from reading back a summary of their progress. It gives clarity for their managers to see exactly what they’ve learnt and demonstrates the value-add clearly to the business.

‘It is not sufficient to have an experience in order to learn. Without reflecting on this experience it may quickly be forgotten, or its learning potential lost.’ Gibbs, 1988.

Reflective learning as a skill

Reflecting helps us to bridge the gap between theory and practice.  To take what we’ve learnt and apply it to our experiences in a more structured way.

If you’re feeling ‘too busy’ to reflect, now is a great time to start! It doesn’t need to form part of a formal learning process, you can weave it into everyday. So how do you develop a reflective habit?

Starting small is better than not starting at all. How about just 2 minutes of reflective learning during the day between meetings? Or on a commute? Or on a dog-walk? I’ve recently heard the phrase ‘silent walking’ and had no idea it was a ‘thing’ to not listen to music / podcasts – I never have. These spaces are where I do my best reflective learning and get my best breakthrough ideas.

If you’re reading this as an L&D professional, or someone who develops others in their role, consider how you can build reflective learning into your own life and then how to encourage it with people you work with.

Neil Thompson, in his book People Skills, suggests that there are six steps:

Read – around the topics you are learning about or want to learn about and develop

Ask – others about the way they do things and why

Watch – what is going on around you

Feel – pay attention to your emotions, what prompts them, and how you deal with negative ones

Talk – share your views and experiences with others in your organisation

Think – learn to value time spent thinking about your work

In other words, it’s not just the thinking that’s important. It’s also about observation, collaboration, and exploration.

Some people like to capture this in a learning journal, others prefer to just go through the process. You do you!

Is it best for introverts? I do my best thinking out loud!

Reflective learning can totally be a shared activity. There’s plenty of evidence from social psychologists and neuroscientists sharing the value of social and collaborative learning.

You could use reflective learning:

And the 2 other options we offer for reflective learning in our Lead! programme are designed for this.

Option 1: Share an update on your progress with the programme sponsors

We’re always overwhelmed by what we hear from our participants. Some choose to tell a story about their progress through the programme, others focus on one key idea and the difference it made for them/their team, or perhaps around the 3 key models that they put into practise and what they’ve learnt from them.

Option 2: Group coaching

This is a valuable opportunity for the cohort to get back together after the close of the programme to share Wins, Walls and Wisdoms. The beauty of this approach, is that they’ll also get to put their coaching skills into practise.

Whatever approach you decide to take, the evidence is there to demonstrate the power of reflective practise, whether individually or socially:

  • A meta-analysis has indicated that reflection can enhance motivation for in-depth learning, improve cognitive and metacognitive strategies, and promote self-improvement.
  • A study on health sciences librarians identified the top benefits of reflective writing as the identification of personal strengths and weaknesses, learning from significant incidents, and achieving perspective.
  • Reflective learning enables students to question their actions, values, and assumptions, and it has been found to promote in-depth learning and the retention of experience.
  • Reflective assessments have been linked to improved student achievement and is considered an effective way to help students learn and retain knowledge.
  • Social connections are vital to human survival and social learning increases the release of feel-good neurotransmitters oxytocin and dopamine. Which in turn lead to greater satisfaction, higher memory retention and increased business impact.



Radical Candor:
Kim Scott

A practical book to help you land honest guidance, and so much more. Former silicon valley leader with plenty of advice and tips.



How to say anything to anyone:
Shari Harley

A 15 minute whirlwind of candid and funny feedback advice, with an 8 step process you can use for the really HARD stuff!



Have a go!

Start small with a lower risk conversation that you’ve been putting off. Try out some of the suggestions here, and then see what response you get.

If you don’t get a great outcome, reflect back on what you were doing, saying and thinking. What could you change for next time?

And if you:

  • Want to practise some of those challenging conversations
  • Need support and guidance to deal with the specific challenge that you’re having right now
  • Want to make sure as a new manager that you’re prepared for when you have to have one

Our Challenging Conversations workshop might be just the thing for you.

Alternatively, our coaches are skilled at working with people who find conflict and confrontation difficult, and can work with you 1-1 to overcome your fears or alter your unhelpful thinking patterns.

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We have a range of virtual training and coaching options and would be happy to speak with you for bespoke or project work too

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